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SEC hoops schedules taking shape

DESTIN, Fla. — As SEC football coaches remain locked in a struggle to settle the newly-expanded league’s scheduling format for their sport, the minor squabbles from its men’s basketball coaches don’t seem so bad.

Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan

This bottom line remains, though: The new 18-game format for the regular season schedule and the new, five-day format for the conference tournament still haven’t been settled.

“We’re getting there, but it’s not etched in stone,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive said it was fair to assume the men’s basketball coaches and athletic directors are much closer to being on the same page.

“Yeah, I think so,” Slive said after Wednesday’s day-long discussions at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort. “I think the (athletic directors) will have to finalize it, but I think we’re pretty much there. But it’ll be finalized Friday. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

Slive wasn’t quite ready to disclose any specifics from those formats, though.

“Come back Friday,” the commissioner said in reference to his annual meeting’s-end press conference that afternoon.

Several SEC coaches discussed portions of the proposals, though.

The gist of the proposed format is each program being designated one home-and-home opponent for a three-year period, with four other programs rotating as home-and-home opponents — with one coming on the schedule and one coming off every season — and then the remaining eight opponents being played one time for a total of 18 games.

Georgia basketball coach Mark Fox

Specifics get a bit more complicated after that, but that’s the basic format.

And it’s gaining pretty good steam.

“That’s the leading candidate right now,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “But nothing is final.”

Fox wouldn’t disclose Georgia’s proposed three-year, home-and-home opponent, but multiple sources said it was South Carolina. Tennessee wanted at least two three-year, home-and-home opponents — Vanderbilt and Kentucky — but the proposal only had UT matched up with Vanderbilt, leaving Kentucky matched up with Florida.

The other proposed three-year, home-and-home opponents were Alabama-Auburn, Missouri-Arkansas, Ole Miss-Mississippi State, and LSU-Texas A&M.

Dates for those games weren’t included in the model, according to Florida coach Billy Donovan.

“The only thing that was presented to us was a model of what it would look like,” Donovan said. “But in terms of dates — when we’re playing, when the conference is gonna start — I mean, the only dates that are locked right now on the schedule is the SEC tournament. Those dates were already fixed. But with two extra games, does that mean we maybe, you know, start and play a league game in December? That’s been discussed, you know, to get our league going that way.

“I think there’s a lot of things they’re gonna look at.”

Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin

The “bottom line” mentioned multiple times by Martin and others was that the SEC needed to look at every out-of-conference and in-conference scheduling proposal to avoid situations like last season, when the league received just four NCAA tournament bids and had at least three viable bubble teams kept out of the field of 68.

“I think when you have 14 teams, there’s some things you have to do,” Martin said. “I mean, there’s talk about different types of tiers so you have different options of how you want to do it. But how do I view it? I don’t think it’s a bad thing. If that means us getting more teams in the NCAA tournament, that’s good — because I’ve said it before, with the caliber of talent and the caliber of coaches in this league, you should have more teams in the NCAA tournament.

“So if (this way) means getting seven-plus teams in, I’m all for it.”

But Martin said the coaches have had to be “willing to listen to everything” — including some ideas that were quickly shot down and others that are still being considered.

“We tossed out a lot of different things as coaches in there because the bottom line is, as a league, we’re trying to do everything in our power to get more teams in the NCAA tournament,” Martin said. “I think the bottom line is you’ve probably got seven-plus teams that should be NCAA-tournament teams in this league right now. There were a lot of topics discussed in those meetings, but I think the most important thing that we talk about is obviously what’s the best ways to benefit our student-athletes, and what’s the best way to get more teams in the NCAA tournament?

“I think right now you’re probably looking at seven-plus teams.”

An idea first publicly mentioned by Calipari on Tuesday seems an intriguing way to bolster SEC resumes. That’s the thought shared by Kentucky’s coach and others, anyway.

Calipari said he’d like to see the SEC break the conference into three tiers, pitting the best against the best, the mediocre against the mediocre and the lowest-tier against the lowest-tier and re-seeding the teams every few years. This idea, also championed by Calipari when he coached Memphis in Conference USA, has been used with success by the Big East — which has flooded the NCAA tournament with teams in recent years.

Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari

“I thought it was a good idea. I really did,” Martin said. “If that helps us get more teams in the NCAA tournament, that’s a great idea.”

Fox said the league’s coaches were primarily concerned with “fairness” — or the closest thing to it.

It won’t be perfect, Georgia’s coach added.

“We’re concerned about fairness, we're concerned about scheduling the best way to get teams in the NCAA tournament and balancing those two things together,” Fox said. “We're going to have a really good basketball conference. And we spent a lot time as coaches every year in how we should schedule the non-league schedule, because we've always had a pretty balanced formula for the schedule. Now we've had to spend time thinking of, 'OK, what's the best way to schedule your league games, because it's going to be an unbalanced schedule.'

“Do we know the answer? We don't know yet. We're trying to figure that out.”

Fox and Martin, along with others, both expressed a desire to find some kind of balance between helping teams reach the NCAA tournament and keeping together as many historically important, home-and-home rivalry games as possible.

“Maybe we would like to see if we could get a balance of East and West, if that's possible, to try to keep some the traditional teams still coming to your place,” Fox said. “But again, there's so many possibilities it's insane. It's not going to be a perfect world. Because it's all so new, we've got to do something for the first time and do what's best for the league. So it's not going to be perfect for everybody. It's going to be something that has some untended consequences that nobody saw coming.

“The league tournament is going to be 14 teams, but as far as the regular season schedule, nothing has been finalized.”

SEC commissioner Mike Slive

Martin said he essentially wanted to have it both ways, too.

“I think for us — being at Tennessee and being a part of it — I think Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia ... if I’m at Tennessee, those are teams I like to see quite a bit, because I’m used to seeing those teams a lot for various reasons,” Martin said. “So if I can see those teams a lot, that’ll be great.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, though, Martin added.

“Some guys have different views about it,” the Vols’ coach said. “I mean, some guys might want to go back to the divisions, so I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re on board with that. I just think that’s the way, me being at Tennessee, I would like to see that.”

One critical component to the league’s lack of NCAA tournament teams in recent years — one that has nothing to do with in-league scheduling format — has also been discussed.

Donovan and Martin — coaches from teams that, along with Kentucky, have played tough out-of-conference schedules in recent years — said every coach and administrator in the SEC needs to get on the same page and play more demanding pre-conference schedules.

“I think of the things we probably need to do a better job of as a league is from an administration standpoint — the (athletic directors) and the coaches — getting together and figuring out the best-case scenario,” Martin said. “If that means scheduling better in the preseason, then that’s something we have to do.” It has to be a situation where the administration, the ADs and the coaches have to get together and say, ‘This is what’s best for our league.’ In order for us to get seven, eight, nine teams in the NCAA tournament, this is what we have to do. But if I’m not made to do it as a head coach, the bottom line for me is being able to feed my family. And that’s probably the most important thing.

“For us at Tennessee, we want to schedule the best teams. We want to have a really good conference schedule and also preseason schedule, and I think that gives you the best chance to be an NCAA tournament team.”

Donovan laughingly added another suggestion.

“If you don’t schedule really well — and let’s say you schedule really, really poorly in the non-conference — just don’t lose,” the two-time national champion said. “It’s those losses, when you have two or three on your schedule and you played a weak non-conference schedule, that really, really hurt you.”

Donovan also said the addition of two more SEC games could cause some teams to play even weaker non-schedules, though.

“Maybe teams take off one of those big-big games now,” he said. “But, like, I mean, our schedule right now is gonna be pretty challenging, going to two extra league games to 18.”

The 14-team, all-inclusive conference tournament seems to be an easy decision on the way, though. Other ideas — such as keeping current tournament at 12 teams — haven’t seemed to pick up much traction.

“You’re talking about 14 teams now,” Martin said. “To win it on that Wednesday going all the way to Sunday, that’s a lot of games. But I just think that’s part of it.”

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